Alberta’s Battle Over Harm Reduction Is Heating Up

September 16, 2021

The consistent hostility of Alberta’s government toward the province’s regulated supervised consumption sites (SCS) has become a fixture in the Canadian news cycle.

The United Conservative Party (UCP), which forms the abstinence-focused Alberta administration, has shut down facilities, issued a much-criticized anti-SCS report, and sought to impose regulations that make sites harder to access and operate.

But two harm reduction organizations operating within the province are pushing back. In August, they filed a lawsuit against the Alberta government, seeking to overturn restrictive new provincial licensing mandates that were due to take effect on September 30.

As Filter reported when the UCP announced the policy in June, the requirements create several barriers—including that any person using an SCS hold a medical referral and provide a provincial health care number; that anyone working at an SCS undergo a background check; and that sites ask permission from surrounding businesses and neighbours to operate.

The two plaintiffs in the legal case are byproducts of the ever-expanding battle over harm reduction rights in Alberta. Moms Stop the Harm is a coalition of mothers and family members who have lost children to overdose. Lethbridge Overdose Prevention Society (LOPS) was formed out of necessity due to the UCP’s closure of ARCHES, which had been the busiest SCS in North America.

“We’ve ended up with six police officers stationed outside our tent at night, with vehicles and spotlights on the tent.”

Over the last year, LOPS has been operating as a pop-up SCS in Lethbridge, often located in the city’s downtown core. Its work has not been unimpeded.

“The provincial government openly instructed the local police force to shut us down, which is unusual because the government is not allowed to instruct police to do things like that,” Timothy Slaney, a member of the LOPS board of directors, told Filter. “What we’ve ended up with is six police officers stationed outside our tent at night, with vehicles and spotlights on the tent. They know we’re not doing anything illegal but they’re doing their best to have a chilling effect on us and our clients.”

This adversarial relationship reflects how Alberta has become a powder keg for harm reductionists—and the planned regulations addressed by the lawsuit have shortened the fuse.

“We call these malicious regulations,” Slaney said. “They’re intended to bury SCS providers under red tape and force them to operate in a way that is really hostile to the people they serve.”

Requiring the collection of identifying information through the new health number mandate ignores how anonymity has often been vital to marginalized people utilizing SCS. Many people who use SCS are unhoused, and seldom have identifying information readily available.

“From what we’ve seen from the research, up to two-thirds of clients would abandon these services from the get-go and start using on the streets instead,” Slaney said. “The government knowing that and deciding to go ahead with it is an attempt to cut off the client load from services and shut them down in one fell swoop.”

LOPS’ struggle with the provincial government and the Lethbridge police created the foundation for a lawsuit that could impact the entire province.

“Moms Stop the Harm would come down and form a human barrier between us and the protestors and police that would appear,” Slaney recounted. “They’ve been natural allies throughout this whole thing; we talk to them every day and they’re some of the best people I know.”

“In Lethbridge right now, they have a person dying of overdose daily, and a very high percentage of the Indigenous community is impacted.”

Kym Porter, a key representative for Moms Stop the Harm in Alberta, has been an integral part of the province’s fight for regulated access to opioids since losing her son to an overdose five years ago.

“Everything we say makes sense but [the government] counters it and the public gets gaslighted,” she told Filter. “These lives to them seem to be dispensable. My son’s life wasn’t … In Lethbridge right now, they have a person dying of an overdose daily, and a very high percentage of the Indigenous community is impacted.”

“it’s beyond unjust,” she concluded. “I don’t have the word in my vocabulary to describe how wrong it is.”

Porter has been monitoring the logistics around Moms Stop the Harm’s involvement in the ongoing lawsuit, including the group’s correspondence with their legal representation and the collection of supporting evidence.

One of many challenges, she said, is allocating people who use SCS—who may be uncomfortable being known publicly, let alone in open defiance of the provincial government—to take the witness stand. Additionally,they might not have the means and they might not necessarily have the routine where they can say, ‘yeah I’m available to show up at court on such and such a date.”

Avnish Nanda, the lawyer representing the plaintiffs, has been following the harm reduction conflict in Alberta closely—and particularly how the UCP’s policies have targeted the Indigenous community. Statistically, members of Alberta’s Indigenous community who use opioids are disproportionately likely to lose their lives to overdose.

“Since this government has taken power and implemented its approach to addressing these issues, there has been a nine-time increase to the rate of First Nation opioid overdose deaths,” Nanda told Filter. “That’s a product of poor policy, that’s a product of a government that is indifferent to the lives of its most vulnerable and marginalized substance users.”

Communications between Nanda and representatives of the Alberta government have been limited in scope. It hasn’t quite been radio silence, he said, but they’re not backing down. “They’re going to continue to stick with what they think is the most excellent approach and it’s an approach that will cause more people to die.”

Nanda’s administrative and legal actions in the ongoing lawsuit have not been in vain, as the health care number mandate put forward by the provincial government has been temporarily halted. Riding on this momentum, Nanda has also filed an injunction application for December to halt the government’s other planned regulations.

“I applaud them, I think it’s good that they’re using a tool that we have at our disposal.”

Members of the public and the harm reduction community focused on the UCP’s harmful policies are joined by some political voices.

Lori Sigurdson of the Alberta NDP (New Democratic Party), a member of the Legislative Assembly of Alberta for the Edmonton/Riverview constituency, has long been one of them. The NDP formed Alberta’s government before Jason Kenny—the current UCP premier—was voted into office in 2019. The party has a history of being pro-harm reduction.

“The sad, tragic thing is that the UCP have really come in with backwards thinking and an antiquated approach and are reducing the harm reduction model in our province and more and more Albertans are vulnerable and losing their lives,” Sigurdson told Filter.

As for the legal actions taken by Moms Stop the Harm and LOPS, Sigurdson said: “I applaud them, I think it’s good that they’re using a tool that we have at our disposal in our society through the legal system. To have the court look at how medical support is being denied for people who are very vulnerable.”

The impact of the current lawsuit will ripple out over the coming months, with the next step being the provincial government’s reaction to the injunctions put forward by Nanda for this December.

As for what keeps the plaintiffs and their allies stalwart in the face of overwhelming challenges, Kym Porter had this to say: “It’s an attitude of hope; we can’t just run on our anger alone.” 



Photograph of downtown Lethbridge by Kim Siever via Flickr/Public Domain

Jake Pesaruk

Jake is a freelance reporter of all trades, including health, politics and investigative features. He specializes in finding the human element that makes a story tick. He lives in Canada.

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